The Limitations of Wisdom
If you didn’t believe in miracles before today, today is your day. So, we’re studying the book of Ecclesiastes. And if we were to try to find a godless version of Solomon, a non-believing version of Solomon (the guy who wrote this) probably Bertrand Russell would be on the shortlist. Russell was born into a British aristocratic family in 1872. He lived almost a hundred years, dying in 1970. He was a philosopher, a mathematician, historian, Nobel laureate. His religious views are most famously recorded in a collection of his books and essays entitled “Why I Am Not a Christian.” In this book we get a glimpse of a tension, I’d say the major tension within Russell, and that is he hated and hunted certitude. He hated and hunted certitude. What I mean by that is he craved certitude with his mathematical mind, but he rebelled against everything dogmatic except his own thoughts. His daughter Katherine concluded, and I believe Katherine became a believer, a Christian. She said of her dad, “I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God or for those who prefer a less personal terms for absolute certainty.” In some ways this is humanly understandable when you know Russell’s life story.
His parents were, and I know this sounds mutually exclusive, but his parents were radical aristocrats. They supported views, political views that were way ahead of their time. They lived essentially an open marriage. Very immoral. Both of them knowingly unfaithful to one another. His mother died when he was 2. His father died when he was 4. He moved in with his grandparents and three years later his grandfather died, and he was essentially raised by his grandmother who he viewed as a gloomy Scottish Presbyterian. And her friends, “friends” not so affectionately named to her the deadly night shade.
That’s a poisonous plant so it’s not a real positive nickname. The only real warm love he seemed to have experienced growing up was from a series of nannies who took care of him. And each time one of them would leave and a new one would come, it was hugely traumatic to him. It shook him deeply and it drove him more and more inward into his thoughts, into his mathematical formulas, and into trying to deal with a very lonely, uncertain world. He wrote, Russell himself wrote on his 80th birthday, “I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith.” Now his religious faith was in his own mind or
what we would call today science, or what I would call scientism. He said, for example, he wrote in 1925 in a little book entitled What I Believe, “Science can if it chooses, enable our grandchildren to live the good life by giving them knowledge, self-control and characters productive of harmony rather than strife.” Now look what he just said. Science can give not only knowledge, mathematic formulas or cures for diseases, but can give self-control and characters productive of harmony.
That seems way beyond the jurisdiction of science, but that was his confidence, it was so high and in science. “At present science is teaching our children to kill each other because many men of science are willing to sacrifice the future of mankind to their own momentary prosperity.” But notice the optimism he has. But this phase will pass when men have acquired the same domination over their own passions that they already have over the physical forces of the external world. Then at last we shall have won our freedom.” So where does freedom come from?
Where does salvation come from? It comes from knowledge, science, and that will teach us to dominate our passions, which is a little tough to stomach. Every decade or so I go back and read this just to check in on how we’re doing. He wrote this almost 100 years ago.
Would any sane soul say that science has discipled people to dominate their passions? The people now a hundred years after he wrote this.
Are more in control of their passions than they were back then when people were out of control, and I don’t think so. Also, it’s a little hard to take when you know his life. He burned through marriage after marriage, relationship after relationship, had a really hard time controlling his own passions. But somehow, he believes science is going to do it. In 1903 in an essay entitled “A Free Man’s Worship” we get a glimpse of both Russell’s writing ability and his intoxication with his own thoughts. I’m just going to read a little bit because this is one ginormous run on sentence and I love it.
“Brief and powerless is man’s life. On him and all his race the slow sure doom falls pitiless and dark.” So, it sounds a little like Ecclesiastes. “Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction.”
And this is where he’s diverting away from Solomon. “Omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.” In other words, all powerful nature does what it does. “For man condemned today to lose his dearest tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only,” now pause. We know we’re doomed. What’s the only thing we can do?
“to cherish ere yet the blow fall, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”
There it is. That’s where salvation comes from. Your life is brief and powerless, you’re doomed to disappear in an irresistible sea of darkness, your only hope is to cherish the little thoughts that ennoble this short day. I mean cherish the lofty thoughts that ennoble this little day. In other words, the Titanic is going down, you can’t escape, but you can go in your head, and you can find a happy place, and you can think noble thoughts, and that will save you even though you’re doomed to disappear.
What Russell is doing here, and this is not just one part of his writing, this is the message of his life, is the opposite conclusion that Solomon is coming to in Ecclesiastes. Both of them start in the same place. There’s a meaninglessness to life, and it’s short, and in one sense they’re similar in the sense of Solomon’s, the theme of Ecclesiastes is let’s stop pretending. Can we stop pretending?
Can we talk honestly about life? Can we stop pretending that we’re going to live on earth and not die? Can we stop pretending that sexual satisfaction is actually going to be realized, that money can do what it promises, or power can come through for you? Can we stop pretending? But where Russell stops and where Solomon keeps going is Solomon extends this sober analysis to our own human wisdom. And essentially what Ecclesiastes 8 is all about is human wisdom is limited. And what he’s going after
is similar to what we’ve been talking about for a number of weeks. Three weeks ago, we talked about kind of a spiritual perfectionism, that is the attempt to control God and our salvation through perfectionism. And then last week we talked about a relational perfectionism, that is objectivizing people and trying to control them and relationships, that servitude applied to relationships. And now we’re talking more today about a social perfectionism, and that is trying to make sense of the tension within society, in life and achieve that certitude that Russell longed for that we all to some extent crave.
And the way Solomon does this is fascinating. He acknowledges that wisdom is good. Look at verse 1. “Who is like the wise and who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine and the hardness of his face is changed.” So, wisdom is good. It brightens, and it softens. It brightens the face like a sunshine melting away the shadows of darkness.
It softens the face because a mind without curiosity is going to result in a face without flexibility. Do you want to get to a crusty, hard face? Do you? Wow, I didn’t come to church for this. Don’t ask any questions. Kill curiosity and you’ll end up with this brittle, crusty face.
So, Solomon is saying that human wisdom brightens and softens the face, but it only goes so far. And knowing the limit of human wisdom is vital if we’re going to navigate the tensions of living in this fallen world. And so, Solomon shows us this tension in three different ways in Ecclesiastes 8. We’re going to look at them through the eyes of kings, crooks and karma. Kings, crooks and karma. Let’s look first at kings. In verses 2-9 he talks about political tension. We’ll read that again. Verse 2. I say keep the king’s command because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence.
Do not take your stand in an evil cause for he does whatever he pleases. Basically, don’t start an insurrection unless you want to die. Verse 4 for the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him what are you doing. Whoever keeps the command will know no evil thing. And now here he’s talking about the way the wise navigate the challenges of submitting to a human government, a ruler.
The wise heart will know the proper time and the just way for there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. Now he’s going to move toward what we don’t know. This tension. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? No man has power to retain the spirit or power of the day of death, there is no discharge from war nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it.
All this I observe while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun when man had power over a man to his hurt. So, the basic tension here is between power and weakness. Human wisdom has the power to shrewdly obey government officials, and these government officials wield great power over people even, verse 9, to their hurt. However, that power for ruler and ruled is limited.
And verse 8, he gives four examples. No man has power to imprison the spirit. The king can put a body in jail. He can’t put a soul in jail. Secondly, no man has power to control death. Stalin can order the killing of millions of his people, but when death knocks on his door he has to open it. Thirdly no man has power to evade war. There’s no discharge from war. And this is an interesting example from Bertrand Russell’s life. He was a fanatical pacifist. He even mocked Hitler. He said when Hitler invades England we’ll drink tea.
He had to eat that when he learned what Hitler was really doing to Jews and what Hitler was really doing to other European countries because Solomon’s point is very real. You can determine never to start a war, but you can’t determine never for anyone to start a war with you. In that sense you can’t guarantee. You can say I’m not going to fight with anybody.
That doesn’t mean they’re not going to fight with you. And fourthly no man has power to manipulate consequences. Nor will wickedness deliver those given to it. Wickedness tends to take on a mind of its own. The government official who tries to do right by doing wrong can soon find himself so entangled in the wrong he did in order to get to do right that his legacy is the wrong not the right. Wickedness takes on a mind of its own. The teenager who decides, I want to go sew my wild oats. I want to enjoy life. One day I’ll repent. He has no idea if there will be a one day or if when that one day comes he will even know what it means to repent because wickedness takes him on a mind of its own. You can’t mess with, you don’t have power to mess with all these consequences, what Solomon is lamenting here and highlighting, the limits of human wisdom.
Second example has to do with crooks. Social tension in verses 10-13. Solomon writes in verse 10, then I saw the wicked buried that used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Now the tension here is between pragmatism and principle. He’s highlighting the fact that there are wicked people who die as heroes, and the tragedy is – notice that they went in and out of the holy place.
So, these were people who showed up at church on Sunday morning who had an image of being spiritual but did wickedness in the same place where they did worship. You see that? He emphasizes “and were praised in the city where they had done such things.” Wow. So, this says more about the populace than it says about the person, which is a really strong warning against group think. Right? Look what Kidner wrote about this.
This is back in 1976 and see if this sounds familiar. “The dictator or the corrupt tycoon may have bent the rules, it will be said; but after all they got things done, they had flair, they lived in style. Feel a little uncomfortable? What he’s saying here is true. Look at presidents. President Clinton. All his fans looked the other way when he was unfaithful because he got things done. President Trump. All his fans can look the other way when he gets things done. No don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not saying you can’t vote for anyone unless they’re perfect, because then how many people are you going to vote for? What I’m saying is Christians we cannot lose our moral bearings. We cannot drink Kool-Aid because the person we happen to vote for – two claps. I think that’s my record.
And this is true of everyone. I’m not slamming on any person. Christians keep our heads. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. You may have someone, a celebrity or a politician who you admire in a great way who does a wrong thing. Can you unequivocally say that was wrong? It was wrong, and I don’t have to clarify. It was wrong.
And we seem to be losing that because we’re so partisan we have an inability to see the wrong on our own team. It’s like parents who yell at the ref when it was obvious, no that actually was a foul. But just because it’s your kid somehow you can’t see it. And Solomon is warning us this is a pragmatism. This is human wisdom. This is the way human wisdom operates. If it works, if it’s consensual, if nobody seems to get hurt in the short run it’s okay. And Solomon says this is why it’s so dangerous. Verse 11, because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of the man is fully set to do evil. Unjudged evil leads to unbridled evil. People begin to assume, oh he did, it everybody does it, it’s not a big deal.
And that is a problem. In verses 12 and 13 Solomon does something you rarely does. He goes preachy on us. He gets all dogmatic. This is in a context of not knowing. If you read this whole context, and he’s going to keep going in chapter 9. We don’t know so much. And right in the middle of that, of the limits of human wisdom he says what he does know.
Look at verse 12. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God. Because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow because he does not fear before God. There are so many things I don’t know. But I know this. You can do wrong a hundred times and you can be cheered for it, and it can make you a lot of money, and you can die with people by the thousands coming to your funeral, and it still will not be well for you. So, he’s stepping back and looking at the big picture that goes way beyond this life.
Thirdly, karma. So, he’s looking at the limits of human wisdom through the eyes of political – kings, crooks and now karma. Look at verse 14.
There is a vanity that takes place on earth that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
Now when I use the word karma I’m talking about a very informal definition. Basically, the idea of what you put in you get out, that there’s no tension between action and reaction, and what Solomon is saying is that is not true. There is tension between action and reaction, and he laments that in verse 14. Righteous people do the right thing and they suffer. Wicked people do the wrong thing and they prosper. And as Kidner points out, human wisdom assumes that righteousness is always digging its own garden and wickedness is always digging its own grave.
But reality says that’s not always true, right?
We all love the testimonies that we share in church. You know the other day I heard about a person who had a need and I only had $85.50 left in in my account, and I wrote him a check for $85.50. And the very next day I went to the mailbox and guess what was in my mailbox. I wasn’t even expecting that $85.50.
And I’ve experienced that kind of provision, so I’m not saying it never happens. But what often happens is I give my $85.50 away, and I go to the mailbox and what is in it? A bill. For $85.50. What in the world? I kept myself pure for marriage, so I have to have a happy marriage, right? I gave to missionaries, so I have to be rich. I didn’t follow the crowd and do this, so God… No, that’s karma. That’s not Christianity. We’re not denying a big picture sew/reap principle which is very clear but that’s different from karma where I’m doing stuff and God’s a concession stand, and I’m going to do this to get this out of the from his hand.
We follow a crucified Savior who lived perfectly and died as a criminal, was completely misrepresented. So, if we think that if we follow Jesus we are never going to suffer, we don’t understand the gospel. Solomon is saying human wisdom tends toward karma not divine. Read 1 Corinthians 1.
So, what should we do? Solomon calls us to do three things in this chapter in light of these tensions. Fear God, find joy and stop taking ourselves so seriously. Fear God, find joy and stop taking yourself so seriously. Let me just mention each one of these. Verse 12. We saw it when he was when he was talking about the one thing I know is that it will be well with those who fear God. Now by fear God again we’re not talking about running away from him in terror viewing him as having his lightning ready to strike. To fear God is to stand in awe of who he really is and to view life through his eyes rather than our own. My confidence is not in my lofty thoughts, and that’s not where I rest. I’m looking at all of life through, as much as God enables me, through the eyes of God.
That’s what it means to fear God. It’s not just to cringe, it’s not to cringe in terror, but it’s to stand in awe of him and view life as he says it really is. Fear God. Find joy. Look at verse 15.
And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink can be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
We’ve seen this repeatedly through Ecclesiastes. The reason we who fear God can actually find joy in a way that others may not be able to is because we receive his gifts as gifts, and we can enjoy them as gifts and not try to make them gods. It’s the burger. It’s a cup of coffee. It’s a car. It’s a house. That’s it. It’s not going to last forever. But he’s given us to enjoy in this moment.
Can we find joy in the simple things of life because we see them in light of the giver of good things not as an end or something that makes me important or gives me status or my friends think I’m cool because I wear it or have it. That’s trying to make it a god, and it never goes well. Find joy in the simple things of life and then stop taking yourself so seriously this is where he ends and verse 16. When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth how neither day or night do one’s eyes sleep. Then I saw the work of God that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun.
However much manmade toil in seeking he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know he cannot find it out. So, Solomon is not minimizing the need and the call of God to research, to explore, to study, to learn.
He commends all of that. But he is clearly stating that your brain is a gift not a god. Your brain is a gift to be used for his glory, and one of the clues that it’s becoming a god as he says in verse 16 is when my brain cannot shut off. I know there’s a variety of causes of insomnia but the kind he’s talking about is prompted by, I’m constantly worrying, constantly thinking, thinking I need to control the world, and I’m trying to play God.
That’s why you own a pillow and God doesn’t. So, use it. And every time you put your head on a pillow, you are worshiping God. You are saying God, I’m going sleep right now because the world is going to keep going and doesn’t need me. I’m grateful you don’t have a pillow. You never sleep because you’ve got this thing, and you know what’s going on, and I don’t. And so
I need to stop taking myself so seriously in the sense that I think everything’s dependent on me. And somehow, I’m going to figure it all out if it kills me. Well hey, it will kill you.
So, I want to contrast Bertrand Russell with a man I believe is a great American hero who experienced some of the losses that Russell experienced early in his life and had a similar love for learning, a great mind, but went a very different direction, truly understood the limits of human wisdom. His name was Daniel Payne. Payne was born to free parents February 24, 1811 in Charleston, South Carolina. His parents dedicated him to the Lord, and his first few years were happy years. But when he was 4 his father died. When he was 9 his mother died. He went to live with a great aunt and there received some education. But then he had to begin working. So, he began apprenticing in several different occupations. During his time as a carpenter apprentice, this is a kind of diligence. Here he is a teenager, no family. He would wake himself up early in the morning and go to bed late at night. By candle light he taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, geometry, astronomy. By 18 years of age he started a school for African-American children, slave and free adults. It cost 50 cents a month to go to school. So, he was literally starving. But the school grew to 60 students and was flourishing until 1834, so for about five and a half years. South Carolina passed a law Act 2639 banning the education of African-Americans, both free and slave.
So, he had to close his school. And at that time, he not only closed the school but got a mob of people burned their church down. There with thousand members of that church. No justice. And as I read his story I’m still amazed at his response. Think about it. He’s lost both his parents. He started a school, it cost him everything, had to shut it down, church burned. Loss after loss. He even lost most of his vision. He loved learning so much. There was an eclipse, and yes, he did not order the glasses on Amazon.
They didn’t know back then. And so, he burned his eyes. And so, with all this loss, loss, loss, loss, you would think he would have turned to despair, anger, bitterness, hatred, revenge. He was tempted, and during those times he had sleepless nights, deep questions about the justice of God, anxiety and uncertainty. And yet by God’s grace he put that behind him and he moved on. In a big way, he went on. He moved up to Gettysburg, went to seminary, eventually became a bishop in the AME church, became the first African-American president of an American university, Wilberforce University. But what is so amazing about that turn away from despair and bitterness, it cannot be understood unless you know what happened to him when he was 18. When he was 18 years old, he was gripped by the gospel of Jesus Christ. He had a deep awareness that he was a sinner in need of a Savior. That his intellect, though vast, and his efforts, though sincere were not enough, that he needed mercy.
And he cried out to Jesus. Listen to what he described happened here. He turned from his own lofty thoughts, he put his faith in Jesus Christ., and he said this. “I gave my whole heart and instantly felt the peace which passeth all understanding and the joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.” Now that is emotional what he experienced, but it’s not primarily an emotion.
The peace which passeth all understanding is that sense of wholeness and wellness and stability that comes from something that is beyond human wisdom. Do you understand that? You’re not going to figure it out. You can’t just get enough questions. And it’s good to ask questions, good to get answers, but you can’t get enough questions answered to get what he’s talking about. It is a gift from God it is a grasp of reality that is more satisfying than human certitude, and it is from God.
And so, he when his school was closed…
One thing that will help make sense of this. It was only a few weeks after he came to Christ he was praying during his lunch hour and the Holy Spirit confirmed in his heart that he had called him to himself in order to educate his people. That’s why shortly after that he started the school. Six years later it was closed, everything seemed lost.
But see human wisdom would have turned toward bitterness and despair. But Payne knew the call of God, and he knew God is bigger than all the injustice, all the kings and crooks and karma. There’s something much bigger than this and he kept pursuing Christ. And that’s why years later when he becomes the first African-American president of a university, God is fulfilling his call on his life.
You say so what does a big chapter like this have to do with me this week? Every day we are assaulted with thoughts, lies, empty promises that come from a variety of sources. If our hope is in our own brains, we are in deep trouble. Again, our brains are gifts, we are supposed to use them. But they are not a sure foundation to rest our lives on. The only foundation is from God, through Christ, by his Spirit in his Word.
And it is a sure foundation. I wish I had a couple of hours to keep reading sermon examples where he talks about this, but I will not do that to you. I want to pray for us that as we, some of you can immediately put your finger on it right now. You know the lies you’re tempted to believe and whether you’re going to put your hope in these lofty thoughts that you think will lead you to joy, or whether you will reject those and put your confidence in God. And I want to pray for us in these battles that we face.
Father, you have made our minds, and you have called us to use them. But in this chapter, you are warning us not to misuse them, not to try to make them do what they can’t do.
So, we by your Spirit are asking you to give us the humility to turn from, to repent of trying to rationalize wrong in the name of accomplishing something we think we need to accomplish, to repent of trying to excuse what we’re doing in light of what someone else is doing or isn’t doing. We repent of this. We repent of trying to demand that you give us the kind of life that we think is reasonable, or that we think we can do this without you. We repent. Lord, we repent of waiting to trust you until we figure you out. We repent of our lofty thoughts. We are not as smart as we think we are.
We need the revelation of your word. It provides light. It not only brightens and softens our faces, but it brightens and softens our hearts. It changes us from within, and that’s what we need, Lord. We need that today. Father, I pray for some in here who may not know you. And your Spirit is calling them right now, calling them away from self-reliance, away from worshiping their own brains, to put their faith in you, Jesus. To believe that we can’t climb to you, so Jesus you came to us.
May there be many cries turning to you. And Lord I pray for those who are in the middle of deep suffering, and it’s hardening us. So, we’re asking for help, Lord, that you would soften our hearts, and you would soften our faces. That we like Daniel Payne would run to you in the face of injustice. Or when our dreams are collapsing, and we wonder, what are you doing, Lord, that we would turn to you, we would cast down those lofty thoughts, we in humility cling to you because you are good, Lord, and you are good. Even when our circumstances are screaming the opposite, even when our hormones are screaming the opposite, you are good. That’s our foundation you are our foundation. Jesus, we need you.
You’ve shown us Notch’s model. But you die to empower it in us. The Lord as we worship you now with these two songs. Just cry out to you. We pray that these would be. More than songs prayers from the yearnings within our hearts. We would see that your cross is the most beautiful display of your goodness even though it was the most terrific action in the history of the world. So, her eyes are on you.